[The following contains spoilers.]
We are in the Roundabout, this multi-coloured indoor amphitheatre at the Summerhall. There is a lady on the lowest tier of the seating who cannot bend her knee. Her leg is in plaster and the foot on the end of it is sticking out from the darkness of the audience, into the space that is meant for the play. She has literally put her foot in it. One of the floor staff is consulting with her. I wonder whether the leg will have to be sawn off. Although the lady’s foot fully declares its presence in a gleaming pink shoe, this play, Brad Birch’s “Black Mountain,” will feature actors repeatedly tearing about in smoke and darkness. One of them will be also carrying an axe. Maybe they should entwine fairy lights around this unfortunate foot.
It is the kind of quirk that often brightens up the world within “Black Mountain.” When that foot is satisfactorily placed out of harm’s way, and the story can begin, Paul and Rebecca (Hasan Dixon and Katie Elin-Salt) are spending some time rebooting their relationship in a conventionally spooky rustic retreat. At the top of the nearby mountain, Rebecca suddenly gushes that the colours of the “fifty miles” beneath them remind her of a particular painting in her parents’ downstairs bathroom. Later, there is a bizarre scene in which a “half eaten” bird apparently drops through a closed window on to the unsuspecting Rebecca. A lot of “Black Mountain” lies in these enjoyable details, so that the play is rather like a morose man with dancing fingertips. Yet away from the banquet of this story’s immediacy, the larder is bare and we are left groping amongst the shadows.
Something has happened to Paul and Rebecca. They now sleep in separate bedrooms. Did their child die (à la the closest cinematic reference point, Don’t Look Now) or are they dead themselves (à la another film within easy distance, The Others)? For a long time, there is no way of telling and so we have to simply watch and wait. A second woman (Sally Messham) turns up. Is she a ghost or a real-life ex-partner of Paul’s who is hiding out with binoculars in some adjoining barn? The dialogue on stage is strongly reminiscent of that within another deeply still country house from horror history: Bly, the setting of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Naturally, the Jamesian dialogue is maddeningly circumlocutory, with nothing conclusive ever being spat out in a neat ball. Paul and Rebecca are constantly talking but the serious “talk” that they have come here to have is always postponed.
Both the acting and the thrilling intimacy of the venue help to considerably plump up this story. There is spectacular lighting and music – if this was a circus, there would be a fat man on his feet clashing cymbals all the time. Rebecca is a bewitching, eerily peaceful presence, who calmly reasons and meaninglessly smiles in the face of the rising storm. For his part, Paul vividly shifts and squirms. With the Roundabout’s wall of invisible spectators as his backdrop, he looks like a luckless Roman general who is defending his conduct before the Senate.
The precedents that “Black Mountain” evokes, such as Don’t Look Now and The Others, had made sure to crescendo to a punchy surprise. That the ending to “Black Mountain” is actually one of the least memorable things about this play instead confirms the gradual ebbing of suspense. Perhaps expectedly for a drama that is named after its scenery, “Black Mountain” is a horror story in which there is altogether too much to admire.